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Words to honor the memory of Dan Shumway II--7/19/05

(Editor's Note: The following was a eulogy presented by Jim Murphy -- a teacher in the Watkins Glen Central School District -- at the funeral for Daniel Shumway II on July 19, 2005. We present it here with Mr. Murphy's approval.)

I have been granted the distinct privilege of speaking about the life of our friend, Dan Shumway, and I am grateful for that opportunity. I first got to know Dan when he was a student in my 8th grade Science class. What set Dan apart from others was his keen interest in all things related to science. He was truly a man of science.

Because of our common interests in science, Dan’s presence in my class was nothing but delightful. Each day, when Dan would enter the classroom, his eyes were immediately scanning my lab table, quickly determining where we were headed that day. One aspect of Dan that was the most remarkable was how much he already knew about the day’s topic, not because he had already learned it in school, but because he had already taught it to himself from his own readings and his own life experiences.

Throughout our year together, we had countless conversations before and after class and during lunch about science topics of every flavor. Dan could talk easily and knowingly of approaching cold fronts, orbiting space stations, exploding volcanoes, cascading electrons, and changing environments. As long as it was science, Dan knew something about it and wanted to know more. His inquiring mind was his special gift.

I have to admit to taking advantage of Dan’s gifts when I assigned lab teams. Poor Dan was often given lab partners who found science to be a struggle. I did this purposefully because working with Dan Shumway in a science lab was like swimming with a lifeguard. No matter what, everything was going to work out just fine. And it did. It always did.

Dan Shumway was my own personal lifeguard when it came to computers. At the time Dan was my student, I was struggling to computerize my science lab with software and lab sensors that were simply beyond the meager level of my own competence. And so, on many occasions, perhaps too many, I would turn to Dan with a helpless look on my face and our eyes would meet. Dan would smile, roll his eyes, shake his head in pity for the old guy and just walk over and come to my rescue. Time after time after time

As I searched for a symbol to summarize and memorialize Dan Shumway, I quickly realized that I could, and should, wrap his memory in Environmental Science, one of Dan’s many intellectual passions. So let me use the language of the environmental scientist and refer to Dan as an “indicator organism” for our community. Please let me explain what I mean by that

When scientists need to make an assessment of the status of a particular environment, they go into the field and collect the organisms found in that environment and identify them. The organisms that are found indicate the condition of that environment. If you can collect organisms that cannot tolerate pollution, that need pristine conditions, you can determine that the environment is in fact quite healthy. If you cannot find these organisms, this environment has some problems. I will use an example from my classroom.

During this past year, my Environmental Science class monitored the environment of Glen Creek. We made weekly trips into the stream with our nets, collecting the organisms that live on the bottom and discovering the story that they would tell. It was my hope that we would find the insect larvae that are most intolerant to pollution, that require high levels of dissolved oxygen -- the indicator organisms of a healthy aquatic ecosystem. These would include the larvae of the Mayfly, Stonefly, and Dobsonfly. I am happy to report that we readily found these organisms and that they testified to the beauty and health of our local environment.

I state here that Dan Shumway can be an indicator organism for us because, if we do find people like Dan Shumway in our community, we can safely conclude the following:

• Our community is filled with families that deeply love and care for their children
• Our community has parents who lead by their example and provide experiences that teach what needs to be learned
• Our community has children capable of being true and genuine friends to others
• Our community produces children who are bright and independent problem-solvers
• Our community is filled with people who are not afraid to do the right thing and who can shine by the light that they themselves emit
• Our community has no shortage of those who will volunteer to help others
• Our community knows how to laugh and have fun
• Our community knows how to learn from mistakes, forgive, and move on
• Our community rises to a challenge, never running away from one
• Our community knows how to take care of itself and provide for anyone who needs help
• Our community never loses sight of the many gifts that it has and realizes that its most important gift is the next generation that it prepares for the future

I believe all these statements to be true because I knew Dan Shumway.

Let me take a chance and fumble with a story that I don’t really understand and that will require each of you to draw your own conclusions and find your own meaning. It is the story of the speech that I just read, and it is absolutely true.

Last Saturday, the day after Dan was killed, my wife and I went to the Shumway house to offer what support we could. As we spoke with Dan and Nancy about their son, I offered to speak about him in any public memorial there might be and left it at that. When I returned home, I realized what I had done, that I may have to stand and speak, and that I better figure out what I might want to say if asked. I let my mind wander as I thought about Dan and our time together. It wasn’t long before this metaphor of Dan as an indicator organism appeared in my mind and wouldn’t go away. I had many misgivings about the idea because I feared that it would be perceived as rather weird and the workings of an unsettled character.

Let me state here that as I began my Environmental Science course last September, I had minimal experience in environmental monitoring and assessment and that the concept of an indicator organism was simply an abstract concept in some textbook. I didn’t know a Dobsonfly from a butterfly. But, thanks to a science colleague who knew what I was proposing to do, I was given a specimen of an adult Dobsonfly that was found in a jar in a storeroom. This four-inch long insect with a six-inch wide wingspan lays its eggs in water, which develop into the larva used as the aquatic indicator organism. The larva leaves the water as the adult that mates and lays eggs to complete the cycle. This specimen sat on my lab table for months and was the topic of many discussions. I had never before seen one nor had any experience with such.

On Sunday, the day after I volunteered my words to Dan and Nancy, I was on a ladder as I continued my summer project of repainting my garage. Alone, high on a ladder, I was lost in my thoughts about Dan’s life and death and how foolish and scared I felt to suggest that he ought to be considered an indicator organism. As I dipped my paintbrush into the can hooked to my ladder, I was astonished to find an adult Dobsonfly, much bigger than the one in the jar, resting on the ladder, one inch from my hand. For several minutes, we studied each other as I fought to make sense of it all. Eventually, I simply continued to paint as my new friend watched. Over the course of the next hour I moved up and down the ladder, moving the ladder to several new spots, never causing the Dobsonfly to spread its wings and move on. Within ten minutes of my final descent from the ladder, my phone rang with a request to speak about Dan. I now had a job and I knew what to say.

I end by telling you that for a few minutes, I considered capturing the Dobsonfly as proof that it really happened. Luckily, I quickly realized that this magnificent insect, like the spirit of our dear friend Dan Shumway, should always be allowed to fly where it must.

 

© The Odessa File 2005
Charles Haeffner
P.O. Box 365
Odessa, New York 14869

E-mail chaef@aol.com